Organizing and Starting a Recovery Group
By Sarah Barton (Sagamore Institute Faith in Communities, 2005)
Successful recovery groups are the result of sensitivity to needs and careful planning. The following steps (based on Bill Morris’ helpful guide, The Complete Handbook for Recovery Ministry in the Church, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993) will help you to organize a flourishing recovery group. Church leaders are urged to purchase the Handbook for additional guidance.
Assess the needs of your congregation
Failure to properly identify the needs in your congregation can quickly lead to the failure of new support groups. One way to assess the need for a support group is to offer an informational seminar on the topic of the potential group. Be sure to make the seminar as non-threatening as possible/ This can be accomplished by not requiring any other time commitments other than the time necessary to attend the seminar; allowing attendees to merely listen to the speaker instead of sharing themselves; and advertising the seminar in such a way as to encourage participation by anyone, not just individuals with the problem being discussed. Also, try to minimize other barriers by offering the seminar at no cost and providing child-care. At the conclusion of the seminar, the level of interest may be evaluated by providing a sign-up sheet for individuals who would like additional information on the topic. If sufficient interest is shown, you may move on to the next step.
Identify Participants and leaders
Once you have determined that there is sufficient interest, you may offer a short-term group lasting ten to twelve weeks led by someone with interest or expertise in the topic being addressed. A short-term group will allow you to determine if there are a number of individuals willing to make a greater commitment for a limited period of time. This initial phase can also help the group to build a sense of community. If there are three or four people interested in continuing the group following the short-term group’s conclusion, ask them if they are willing to form leadership core for an ongoing support group.
Develop a Group Format
Certain preparations over a span of three or four months will be necessary to help the group continue to thrive. One of these is the development of a group format. A group format will guide the group and keep it from straying from its purpose. It will ensure that each meeting is uniformly structured, enabling participants to feel secure, knowing that their attendance will be beneficial to them. The group format should be written in a short and simple form and handed out to all members of the group at each meeting. The written format will enable anyone to facilitate the group by simply following the format’s guidelines and will help familiarize newcomers with what will happen in each meeting. Although each group may tailor its format to fit its needs, elements that may be helpful are a standard welcome, an opening prayer, a statement of the purpose and process of the group, greetings of members and newcomers, announcements, meditation, group sharing and discussion, and an affirmation and closing prayer. One and a half hours is a suggested time frame for the meeting to take place.
Develop Group Guidelines
Group guidelines should also be developed to establish how group participants should share with and relate to each other during the discussion portion of the meeting. Several elements are essential to help members of the group to feel secure and supported enough to open up to one another in ways that will promote recovery and healing. These critical elements include:
· taking personal responsibility for one’s own thoughts, feelings, behavior, and recovery,
· unconditional acceptance of one another,
· treating one another with respect,
· a commitment to honesty,
· openness to the insights of others, and
· an attitude of encouragement at all times.
A short form containing a brief explanation of these guidelines may be made available, as well as a long form detailing exactly what these elements may look like in the life of the group and what types of statements and responses will not be appropriate.
Train Group Leaders
Although development of the group format will make it possible for anyone to facilitate the group, some training may be beneficial for group leaders. Practice meetings during which each leader directs the group from beginning to end will help leaders to know what to expect during the meetings. Published resources also are available for training group leaders. However, a spirit of service and knowledge that God is responsible for the success of the group will provide leaders with confidence. God will work through the fellowship of the group members to provide them with healing and recovery; it is not dependent upon the wisdom of the group leader.
Publicize the New Group
If your church, synagogue, or mosque publishes a newsletter, a great way to publicize the new support group is to include a major article in the newsletter preceding the first group meeting. An announcement should be included in the bulletin at worship services for four weeks prior to the first group meeting and an announcement by the worship leader the week prior to and the week of the first group meeting will help raise awareness about the group. If you would like to open the group to the wider community, most newspapers include a section for free community announcements where you may publicize the support group. Similarly, some radio and television stations will publicize groups as a public service announcement. Be sure to make it clear in those announcements that the group is faith-based so that those outside your congregation will know what to expect. Other faith leaders and counselors in your area may be made aware of the group so that they can publicize the group as well.
Characteristics of a Successful Group Meeting
Before the meeting begins, the room should be set up with chairs in a circle to facilitate a sense of community and fellowship, with copies of the group format placed in each chair. A sign should be put on the door and the temperature adjusted to make sure the room is comfortable. A book table containing books relevant to the topic being addressed may be helpful as well. Be sure to offer only books that group leaders have reviewed and are comfortable with including. One individual should be designed as a greeter to welcome newcomers and group members as they enter. If possible, childcare should be provided to help encourage attendance. A time of prayer and praise prior to the meeting may be included to express thanksgiving and petitions to God and to ask God to guide the group meeting.
After group members have arrived, the meeting is ready to begin. As mentioned above, it is essential that the group leader follow the standardized format. He/she should have members take a seat and say a word of welcome. The first portion of the meeting, which includes the welcome, opening prayer, the description of the group’s purpose, the guidelines that the group will follow in its sharing time, and announcements, should take no longer than fifteen minutes. The bulk of the meeting should be devoted to sharing and discussion. The greeting ritual used by Twelve Step programs is a good way to build community and to affirm group participants. During this greeting, each group member says “Hi, my name is ____” and briefly describes the reason for joining the group. The rest of the group then responds with “Hi” and the person’s first name. Next, the group leader or another pre-designated group member will share an opening devotional or meditational reading relevant to the recovery topic for that meeting. Then the person who does the reading will be the first to share thoughts and feelings about the topic, having had time to think about it. Then the discussion will be opened to the entire group, who will then have an opportunity to share according to the group guidelines. The group discussion may continue until five minutes prior to the end of the meeting, when a closing prayer will bring the meeting to an end. The prayer you use is up to your group, but it is best that it be a ritual that closes the meeting the same way at every group meeting.
When the meeting ends, group participants should be encouraged to continue in fellowship with one another and to make newcomers feel welcome. The sense of community and belonging that will develop is vital to the healing and recovery process. In addition, a quiet area in another room may be designated for group members to minister to each other’s individual needs by praying for one another.